Monthly Archives: May 2014

May 30, 1989 (a Tuesday)

Goddess of Democracy

On this date, dissident Chinese art students finished setting up a large, 10-meter-tall (33 ft) sculpture called the “Goddess of Democracy” (民主女神) in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Modeled after the Statue of Liberty, it became one of the enduring symbols of the protest.

The art students who created the statue wrote a declaration that said in part:

At this grim moment, what we need most is to remain calm and united in a single purpose. We need a powerful cementing force to strengthen our resolve: That is the Goddess of Democracy. Democracy…You are the symbol of every student in the Square, of the hearts of millions of people. …Today, here in the People’s Square, the people’s Goddess stands tall and announces to the whole world: A consciousness of democracy has awakened among the Chinese people! The new era has begun! …The statue of the Goddess of Democracy is made of plaster, and of course cannot stand here forever. But as the symbol of the people’s hearts, she is divine and inviolate. Let those who would sully her beware: the people will not permit this! …On the day when real democracy and freedom come to China, we must erect another Goddess of Democracy here in the Square, monumental, towering, and permanent. We have strong faith that that day will come at last. We have still another hope: Chinese people, arise! Erect the statue of the Goddess of Democracy in your millions of hearts! Long live the people! Long live freedom! Long live democracy!

Protesters surrounding the sculpture of the Goddess of Democracy in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, May 30, 1989.

The document was signed by the eight art academies that sponsored the creation of the statue: The Central Academies of Fine Arts, Arts and Crafts, Drama, and Music; the Beijing Film Academy; the Beijing Dance Academy; the Academy of Chines Local Stage Arts; and the Academy of Traditional Music.

Photo from May 30, 1989; a student from an art institute plasters the neck of the Goddess of Democracy

The Goddess of Democracy had stood for only five days before being destroyed by soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army in the assault on Tiananmen that would end the Democracy Movement. Nevertheless, the original statue has become an icon of liberty and a symbol of the free speech and democracy movements.

May 28, 1807 (a Thursday)

Louis Agassiz

On this date, Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was born in the village of Montier, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Receiving his medical degree from the University of Erlangen in 1830, he went to Paris in November 1831 to study comparative anatomy under Cuvier, the most famous naturalist in Europe. Cuvier died in April 1832, yet although their relationship lasted only six months, Agassiz always considered himself an intellectual heir of Cuvier. For the rest of his life, Agassiz promoted and defended Cuvier’s geological principle of catastrophism and his classification of the animals.

After Cuvier’s death, Agassiz became a professor at the Lyceum of Neuchatel in Switzerland, where for thirteen years he worked on many projects in paleontology, systematics, and glaciology. Agassiz began studying glaciers in 1836 as something of a sideline, but his contributions made him known as the “Father of Glaciology.”

In 1848, Agassiz became a professor at Harvard University. He immediately set about establishing a great museum of natural history. In 1859, his dream came true with the founding of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, which opened its doors in 1860. Agassiz labored for support of science in his adopted homeland; he and his colleagues urged the creation of a National Academy of Sciences, and Agassiz became a founding member in 1863. Agassiz was also appointed a regent of the Smithsonian Institution in 1863.

The cornerstone of Agassiz’s biological thought was his belief that the ranking from low to high forms, in any taxon, paralleled the order of appearance in the fossil record, the order of stages in the organisms’ development, and the distribution and ecology of the taxon. The “lowest” forms were found lowest in the rock record, earliest in embryonic development, and at the highest latitudes. Agassiz summed up his thought in his Essay on Classification, first published in 1851:

…the phenomena of animal life correspond to one another, whether we compare their rank as determined by structural complication with the phases of their growth, or with their succession in past geological ages; whether we compare this succession with their relative growth, or all these different relations with each other and with the geographical distribution of animals upon the earth. The same series everywhere!

Darwin, and many others after him, accepted these parallelisms as providing evidence for evolution. Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species that “this doctrine of Agassiz accords well with the theory of natural selection.” But Agassiz was no evolutionist; in fact, he was probably the last reputable scientist to reject evolution outright for any length of time after the publication of The Origin of Species. Agassiz saw the Divine Plan of God everywhere in nature, and could not reconcile himself to a theory that did not invoke design. He defined a species as “a thought of God.” As he wrote in his Essay on Classification:

The combination in time and space of all these thoughtful conceptions exhibits not only thought, it shows also premeditation, power, wisdom, greatness, prescience, omniscience, providence. In one word, all these facts in their natural connection proclaim aloud the One God, whom man may know, adore, and love; and Natural History must in good time become the analysis of the thoughts of the Creator of the Universe…

Natural theology had once inspired countless scientists, including Darwin and his forerunners, but by the time of publication of the Origin of Species it had largely run out of steam, unable to offer any real explanation for natural phenomena except “God made it that way.” Within Agassiz’s lifetime, and much to his grief, most of his students — including his son Alexander, a well-known naturalist in his own right — became evolutionists, though not necessarily Darwinians.

Yet Agassiz still made lasting contributions to evolutionary biology and systematics. Perhaps Agassiz’s greatest lasting insight was the realization that paleontology, embryology, ecology, and biogeography had to contribute to any classification that purported to show the true relationships of organisms — even if those relationships, to Agassiz, existed only in the mind of God. As he wrote in his Essay on Classification:

Classification seems to me to rest upon too narrow a foundation when it is chiefly based on structure. Animals are linked together as closely by their mode of development, by their relative standing in their respective classes, by the order in which they have made their appearance upon earth, by their geographical distribution, and generally by their connection with the world in which they live, as by their anatomy. All these relations should, therefore, be fully expressed in a natural classification; and though structure furnishes the most direct indication of some of these relations, always appreciable under every circumstance, other considerations should not be neglected which may complete our insight into the general plan of creation.

May 28, 585 B.C.E.

A Total Solar Eclipse over Turkey

On this date, the Battle of Halys, also known as the Battle of the Eclipse, took place at the Halys River (present-day “Kızılırmak” river in Turkey) between the Medes and the Lydians. The final battle of a fifteen-year war between Alyattes II of Lydia and Cyaxares of the Medes, the battle ended abruptly due to a total solar eclipse. The eclipse was perceived as an omen, indicating that the gods wanted the fighting to stop. Since the exact dates of eclipses can be calculated, the Battle of the Halys is the earliest historical event of which the date is known with such precision.  (This date is based on the proleptic Julian calendar.)

According to Herodotus (Histories, 1.74):

In the sixth year a battle took place in which it happened, when the fight had begun, that suddenly the day became night. And this change of the day Thales the Milesian had foretold to the Ionians laying down as a limit this very year in which the change took place. The Lydians however and the Medes, when they saw that it had become night instead of day, ceased from their fighting and were much more eager both of them that peace should be made between them.


  • Herodotus, translated by Robin Waterfield, (1998). The Histories. New York: Oxford University Press.

May 28, 1961 (a Sunday)

On this date, the British newspaper The London Observer published British lawyer Peter Benenson’s article “The Forgotten Prisoners” on its front page, launching the Appeal for Amnesty 1961 — a campaign calling for the release of all people imprisoned in various parts of the world because of the peaceful expression of their beliefs.

Amnesty International poster

Benenson was inspired to write the appeal after reading an article about two Portuguese students who were jailed after raising their glasses in a toast to freedom in a public restaurant. At the time, Portugal was a dictatorship ruled by Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. Outraged, Benenson penned the Observer article making the case for the students’ release and urging readers to write letters of protest to the Portuguese government. The article also drew attention to the variety of human rights violations taking place around the world, and coined the term “prisoners of conscience” to describe “any person who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing…any opinion which he honestly holds and does not advocate or condone personal violence.”

Amnesty International 50th Anniversary poster

“The Forgotten Prisoners” was soon reprinted in newspapers across the globe, and Berenson’s amnesty campaign received hundreds of offers of support. In July, delegates from Belgium, the United Kingdom, France, the United States, Germany, Ireland and Switzerland met to begin “a permanent international movement in defense of freedom of opinion and religion.” The following year, this movement officially became the human rights organization Amnesty International.

In 1977, the organization received the Nobel Peace Prize. Amnesty International owes much of its success in promoting human rights to its impartiality and its focus on individuals rather than political systems. Today, Amnesty International continues to work toward its goals of ensuring prompt and fair trials for all prisoners, ending torture and capital punishment and securing the release of “prisoners of conscience” around the globe.

May 27, 1961 (a Saturday)

Marshall Nirenberg and Heinrich Matthaei.

On this date, in a laboratory on the seventh floor of Building 10 on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland at three o’clock in the morning, J. Heinrich Matthaei combined the synthetic RNA made only of uracil (called poly-U) with cell sap derived from E. coli bacteria and added it to each of 20 test tubes. This time the “hot” test tube was phenylalanine. The results were spectacular and simple at the same time: after an hour, the control tubes showed a background level of 70 counts, whereas the hot tube showed 38,000 counts per milligram of protein. The experiment showed that a chain of the repeating bases uracil forced a protein chain made of one repeating amino acid, phenylalanine. The genetic code could be broken! UUU=Phenylalaline was a breakthrough experimental result for Marshall Nirenberg and Heinrich Matthaei.  In August 1961, they published their now-classic report, “The Dependence of Cell-Free Protein Synthesis in E. Coli upon Naturally Occurring or Synthetic Polyribonucleotides,” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

May 25, 1769

Jan Ingen-Housz

On this date, the Dutch physician and scientist Jan Ingen-Housz was elected to the Royal Society of London. He is best known today for showing that light is essential to photosynthesis and thus having discovered photosynthesis. He also discovered that plants, like animals, have cellular respiration.

In the summer of 1771, Joseph Priestley had carried out experiments with air and jars, noting that a closed jar would eventually kill a mouse and extinguish a candle, but vegetation (he used mint) would allow the mouse to live and the candle to burn. Although he did not have the official names of the “types” of air he was observing, Priestly had discovered that mice and candles need something (oxygen), and plants are capable of using other things in the air (carbon dioxide) to produce that something. In short, plants restore to the air whatever breathing animals and burning candles remove.  However, Priestly and others were unable to reproducibly demonstrate oxygen production by plants because they were unaware of the requirement for light in photosynthesis.

Probably motivated by Priestley’s publications on the subject, Ingen-Housz obtained a short leave of absence in 1779 from his post in Vienna, Austria in order to do research in England on plants during the summer months. He performed more than 500 experiments trying to determine why plants restore bad air and described the results in his exceptional book entitled Experiments Upon Vegetables, Discovering Their Great Power of Purifying the Common Air in the Sunshine and of Injuring it in the Shade and at Night, published in October 1779.

Underwater plants producing bubbles of oxygen.

In some of his experiments, Ingen-Housz placed plants underwater in a transparent container.  He found they gave off bubbles of gas only when placed in sunlight and that the bubbles gradually ceased when the plants were placed in darkness. He determined that it is not because of the warmth of the sun, and it is not the sun acting on its own, but the light of the sun reacting with the green parts (stalks and leaves) of the plants.

Once he realized a gas was being produced in the presence of light, Ingen-Housz collected it and conducted a series of tests to determine its identity. He eventually discovered that a smoldering candle would relight when it was exposed to the unknown gas. This showed that it was oxygen (known at that time as ‘dephlogisticated’ or ‘vital’ air).

In another experiment, Ingen-Housz put a plant and a candle into a transparent closed space. He allowed the system to stand in sunlight for two or three days. This assured that the air inside was pure enough to support a candle flame. But he did not light the candle. Then, he covered the closed space with a black cloth and let it remain covered for several days. When he tried to light the candle it would not light. Ingen-Housz concluded that somehow the plant must have acted in darkness like an animal. It must have breathed, fouling the air. Ingen-Housz quickly printed his book in London, allowing him to take along copies when he returned to Vienna.

The biochemistry of photosynthesis.

So why is Priestley until today a well-known name in the history of science, while Ingen-Housz is virtually unknown , except for a few historians of chemistry and botany? Ingen-Housz was a humble person, not interested in fame, pomp, or circumstance. Low-key and introverted, enjoying friendships, shying away from stardom, he stood in contrast to some of his fellow researchers of that time. For example, Priestley admitted in private that Ingen-Housz indeed had been the first to describe the beneficial power of plants in a letter to Giovanni Fabroni from 1779:

I have just read and am much pleased with Dr. Ingenhousz’ work. The things of most value that he hit upon and I missed are that leaves without the rest of the plants will produce pure air and that the difference between day and night is so considerable.

Priestley promised Ingen-Housz that he would rectify the situation in a later publication. But the attribution never appeared in print; Ingen-Housz was not even mentioned by Priestley. In the meantime, Priestley repeatedly claimed in public to have observed and published before Ingen-Housz and kept repeating this until 1800. In fact, never did Priestley give an accurate reference to Ingen-Housz’ work, never did Ingen-Housz’ name appear in the index of Priestey’s works. On the other hand, Ingen-Housz systematically referred to Priestley, with much respect.  Ingen-Housz refrained from disputing the claims of his rival colleagues, but they continued as they did, obfuscating Ingen-Housz’ rightful place in science as the discoverer of photosynthesis in the eyes of the historians and the public.


May 24, 1793 (a Friday)

Edward Hitchcock

On this date, the geologist and clergyman Edward B. Hitchcock was born. In 1840 he co-founded, with other state geologists, the American Association of Geologists, parent of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and in 1863 he became a charter member of the National Academy of Sciences. Hitchcock was president of Amherst College from December 1844 to November 1854 and also taught natural theology and geology there from 1845 until his death.

Hitchcock left his mark in paleontology. He published papers on fossilized tracks in the Connecticut Valley, including Eubrontes and Otozoum (these are the names of the footprints, identified by their shape, and not of the genus or genera that made them, which is as yet unknown), that were later associated with dinosaurs, though he believed, with a certain prescience, that they were made by gigantic ancient birds.

However, his chief project was natural theology, which attempted to unify and reconcile science and religion, focusing on geology. His major work in this area was The Religion of Geology and its Connected Sciences (Boston, 1851). In this book, he found somewhat tortured ways to make the Bible agree with the latest geological theories. For example, he knew that the earth was at least hundreds of thousands of years old, vastly older than the 6,000 years posited by Biblical scholars. Hitchcock actually found a way to read the original Hebrew so that a single letter in Genesis—a “v”, meaning “afterwards”—implied the vast time spans during which the earth was formed.

May 23, 1905 (a Tuesday)

Nettie Stevens (1904)

Nettie Stevens (1904)

On this date, Nettie Maria Stevens submitted her manuscript “Studies in Spermatogenesis with Especial Reference to the ‘Accessory Chromosome'” to the Carnegie Institution for publication in the Carnegie monograph series. It was sent on May 29 to E.B. Wilson, a member of the institution’s advisory committee, for his opinion. He returned it on June 13 with the brief statement: “It is in every way a most admirable piece of work which is worthy of publication by any learned society, and I do not hesitate to recommend it to you for publication by the Institution.” Wilson’s comments were an understatement; her research paper was one of the 20th century’s major scientific breakthroughs.

Stevens’ monograph was published in September 1905, the first documentation that observable differences in chromosomes could be linked to an observable difference in physical attributes, i.e. if an individual is a male or a female. This caused many at the time to re-evaluate earlier conclusions of sex determination, and to begin looking more generally at a chromosomal basis for animal sex determination.

Nettie Stevens, educated at Stanford University and Bryn Mawr College (Ph.D., 1903), taught throughout her relatively short life, inspiring many students to careers in science. She published more than 38 papers from 1901 to her death (1912), in cytology and experimental physiology.

May 23, 1707

Celebration of Linnaeus' 300th Birthday.

On this date, the Swedish botanist, zoologist and geologist Carolus Linnaeus was born. He presented his revolutionary sexual system of plants for the first time in 1735. His contemporaries were shocked by the frank parallels Linnaeus made to human sexuality – nevertheless his practical system was soon to spread around the world.

May 22, 1609

Ruins of Fort Nassau on Banda Naira, built by the Dutch East India Company in 1609.

Ruins of Fort Nassau on Banda Naira, built by the Dutch East India Company in 1609.

On this date, fed up with their treatment at the hands of the Dutch, the people of Banda in the “East Indies” ambushed some Dutch soldiers, killing their leader, Admiral Pieter Verhoeven (Peter Verhoef). This was witnessed by a certain Jan Pieterzoon Coen, then a young lieutenant, who escaped.

By 1621, Coen had been appointed the Governor General of the United Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC), and he set out to destroy resistance in the islands of Banda. On 8 May 1621, he ordered the brutal murder of 44 local leaders, called Orang Kaya.

VOC lieutenant Nicolas van Waert — whose own men could not fight the order and some of whom were killed when refusing to comply — expressed the general revulsion towards Coen’s methods:

Six Japanese soldiers were also ordered inside, and with their sharp swords they beheaded and quartered the eight chief orang kaya and then beheaded and quartered the thirty-six others. This execution was awful to see. The orang kaya died silently without uttering any sound except that one of them, speaking in the Dutch tongue, said, ‘Sirs, have you no mercy?’ But indeed nothing availed.


All that happened was so dreadful as to leave us stunned. The heads and quarters of those who had been executed were impaled upon bamboos and so displayed. Thus did it happen: God knows who is right. All of us, as professing Christians, were filled with dismay at the way this affair was brought to a conclusion, and we took no pleasure in such dealings.

Another VOC officer wrote that “things are carried on in such a criminal and murderous way that the blood of the poor people cries to heaven for revenge.”

The Palace inhabited by Governor J.P.Coen was built in 1611 by the Dutch East India Company.

The Palace inhabited by Governor J.P.Coen was built in 1611 by the Dutch East India Company.

Then, Coen orchestrated the massacre of virtually every single member of Banda’s male population over 18 years of age, reducing the total population of 15,000 to less than 1,000, the remainder consisting of mostly young girls and older women. The year 1621 is therefore etched into the minds of the Bandanese people to this day.

The Banda Archipelago is a small cluster of six idyllic emerald islets and scattered rocky outcrops, covering about 40 square miles and located in the middle of the Banda Sea of Indonesia. The Banda group consists of the islands of Banda Naira, Pulau Lonthor, Pulau Ai, Pulau Run, Gunung Api, Pulau Rozengrain, as well as tiny Pulau Hatta. The islands are the native home of the stately Myristica fragrans tree from which two spices, nutmeg and mace, are gathered. It was because of this that Banda became known as the original Spice Islands.

Banda’s nutmegs have been traded to Europe as far back as the second century B.C.E. by land and sea routes to China and were among the precious cargoes carried by camels along the Silk Road to the West. Nutmeg and other East Indian spices were brought to Europe by the crusaders. In medieval times, it was believed nutmeg could ward off the plague, so nutmeg became very popular and its price skyrocketed.

In 1453, Constantinople fell to the Turks, thus blocking the overland trade route for Christian Europe, and necessitating a sea route to the source of these spices. This launched the European Age of Exploration and Discovery. Vasco da Gama, Magellan, and other famous early explorers rounded the Cape of Good Hope in search of a sea route to the spiceries and greatly expanded European knowledge of the known world.

The Dutch massacre of forty-four Orang Kaya at Fort Nassau on 8 May 1621.

The Dutch massacre of forty-four Orang Kaya at Fort Nassau on 8 May 1621.

The Portuguese were among the earliest European arrivals in Southeast Asia. Alfonso de Albuquerque conquered Mallaca and immediately dispatched a squadron of three small ships to the fabled spiceries with the help and guidance of a local Malay pilot. Their search for the original source of the spices led them to the Banda Islands by early 1512. After friendly trading, the ships returned to Lisbon having realized more than one thousand percent profit. The Dutch arrived in 1599, almost 100 years after the Portuguese, who would then be displaced.

The nutmeg trade was a highly profitable one with spices selling for 300 times the purchase price in Banda. This amply justified the expense and risk in shipping them to Europe. The allure of such profits saw an increasing number of Dutch expeditions; investors soon saw that in trade with the East Indies, competition would eat into all their profits. Thus they united to form the VOC, which received a charter from the Netherlands on 31 December 1602 granting it a 21-year monopoly over the Asian trade.

The United Dutch East India Company is often considered to have been the first multinational corporation in the world and it was the first company to issue stock. It was also arguably the first megacorporation, possessing quasi-governmental powers, including the ability to build forts, maintain armies, wage war, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties with indigenous rulers, coin money, and establish colonies.

On May 23, 1602, Dutch captain Wolfert Harmenszoon persuaded some of Banda Naira’s chiefs to sign a treaty (known as “The Eternal Compact“), in Dutch — a language they couldn’t read — granting the Dutch East India Company a monopoly in the nutmeg trade. Some, but not all, of the Orang Kaya signed the agreement, fearing to offend the merchants and invite violent reprisals if they refused. But since there was no real benefit in reserving all their spice for the Dutch, they did not abide by the agreement — if, indeed, they had ever considered doing so. The Dutch would later use this document to justify Dutch troops being brought in to defend their monopoly and to apply it to all of the nutmeg trade on all the Banda Islands, not just to the region controlled by the signatories.


  • Stephen R. Brown. Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600-1900 (Canada: Douglas & McIntyre, 2009).
  • Giles Milton. Nathaniel’s Nutmeg (Sceptre, 1999).

May 21, 427 B.C.E.

Delphi Platon statue.

Today is thought to be the date of birth of the Greek philosopher Plato, student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle. Together the three formed the basis of Western philosophy. Nevertheless, when one compares Plato with some of the other philosophers who are often ranked with him — Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kant, for example — he can be recognized to be far more exploratory, incompletely systematic, elusive, and playful than they. That, along with his gifts as a writer and as a creator of vivid character and dramatic setting, is one of the reasons why he is often thought to be the ideal author from whom one should receive one’s introduction to philosophy.

Plato was born with the name Aristocles. He was surnamed Plato because of his exceptionally well-developed broad shoulders. He founded the Academy in Athens, Greece, which is considered to have been the prototype of the modern university. Many of his writings focused on justice, virtue and politics, although he also had great interest in rhetoric, art, and literature. Plato himself did not contribute substantial works directly to science and mathematics, but his stress on mathematics and philosophy, and his insistence on defining terms rather than trusting intuition, influenced many later thinkers. Furthermore, his ideas on education and what constituted knowledge inspired his followers to explore the world in new ways.

In Plato’s dialogue entitled Theaetetus, Socrates considers a number of definitions as to what knowledge is, the last being that knowledge is true belief that has been “given an account of” — meaning explained or supported in some way. According to this definition, in order to know that a given proposition is true, one must not only believe the relevant true proposition, but one must also have a good reason for doing so. In other words, no one would gain knowledge just by believing something that happened to be true. For example, an ill person with no medical training, but a generally optimistic attitude, might believe that he/she will recover from his/her illness quickly. Nevertheless, even if this belief turned out to be true, the patient would not have known that he/she would get well since his/her belief lacked justification. This is the most widely accepted definition of knowledge that has persisted to the modern day.

Interestingly, Plato, through his famous Symposium, has given his name to the love that dare not speaks its name, even though Platonic love has come to mean lately a kind of sexless friendship. That Platonic love before Freud was clearly Gay love is evident in Patience, Gilbert and Sullivan’s devastating satire on the aesthetic movement, in which the effeminate poet Bunthorne sings about “an attachment a la Plato for a bashful young potato and not too French, French bean!”

Noteworthy Quote:

Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back. Those who wish to sing always find a song. At the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet.

May 21, 1799 (a Tuesday)

Mary Anning portrait

On this date, the English geologist and paleontologist Mary Anning was born.

May 20, 1747 (a Saturday)

James Lind

James Lind wrote in his A Treatise of the Scurvy (published in 1753):

On the 20th of May, 1747, I took twelve patients in the scurvy on board the Salisbury at sea. Their cases were as similar as I could have them.

Thus began Lind’s description of his classic therapeutic experiment on sailors with the scurvy in which various, then proposed remedies, were tested as antiscorbutics. His report continued:

[The subjects] lay together in one place…in the fore-hold; and had one common diet, viz. water-gruel sweetened with sugar in the morning; fresh mutton-broth often times for dinner;…and for supper, barley and raisins, rice and currants, sago and wine, or the like. Two of these were ordered each a quart of cider a-day. Two others took twenty-five [drops] of elixir vitriol three times a-day, upon an empty stomach…Two others took two spoonfuls of vinegar three times a-day, upon an empty stomach;…Two of the worst patients…were put under a course of sea-water. Of this they drank half a pint every day…Two others had each two oranges and one lemon given them every day. These they eat with greediness, at different times, upon an empty stomach. They continued but six days under this course, having consumed the quantity that could be spared. The two remaining patients, took the bigness of a nutmeg three times a-day, of an electuary recommended by an hospital-surgeon, made of garlic, mustard-seed, [horse-radish], balsam of Peru, and gum myrrh…

The consequence was, that the most sudden and visible good effects were perceived from the use of the oranges and lemons; one of those who had taken them, being at the end of six days fit for duty… The other was the best recovered of any in his condition; and being now deemed pretty well, was appointed nurse to the rest of the sick.

Cider, Lind reported, had the next best effect. There was no remarkable alteration of the course of the disease in any of the other patients at the end of the two weeks’ tests. Although he does not mention them in the quotation above, Lind had a control group — all the other patients on board of his ship. These patients did not get anything that might cure their disease — all they got was a pain-killing paste (“lenitive electuary”), a laxative (cremor tartar), and/or a cough syrup (“pectoral”). It is clear that these products can have an effect on the symptoms (pain, constipation) but will not cure the disease. Thus, Lind’s experiment provided clear evidence of the curative value of oranges and lemons and was also the first example of a controlled clinical trial using human subjects.

May 20, 1806 (a Tuesday)

John Stuart Mill

On this date, John Stuart Mill was born in England. Mill, who met Jeremy Bentham as a young man, became a champion of individual liberty. With Bentham, Mill advanced utilitarianism, a philosophy advocating that the role of government is to create the greatest amount of good with the least evil. Mill, known for his clear writing style and compelling logic, advanced and popularized such ideals as social and sexual equality, the public ownership of national resources, and political liberty. Mill was tutored at a tender age by his father, James Mill, who was an agnostic. Mill could not remember a time when he could not read Greek, writing in his autobiography that he started Greek study by age three. Mill wrote in his Autobiography (1873) that his father “impressed upon me from the first, that the manner in which the world came into existence was a subject on which nothing was known: that the question, ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, because we have no experience or authentic information from which to answer it; and that any answer only throws the difficulty a step further back, since the question immediately presents itself, Who made God?”

Even as a teenager, Mill wrote a defense of skeptic Richard Carlile, jailed for six years for “blasphemous libel.” After a clerkship in India House, Mill became part of the “philosophic Radicals,” and wrote for number of journals. A System of Logic, in two volumes, came out in 1843, followed by Principles of Political Economy (1848), On Liberty (1859), Utilitarianism (1863), and The Subjection of Women (1869). The latter book was influenced by his wife Harriet Hardy Taylor, a longtime friend whom Mill married in 1851. “Every established fact which is too bad to admit of any other defense is always presented to us as an injunction of religion,” he noted in this work. In On Liberty, a work dedicated to his wife, who died in 1858, Mill rejected a standard of ethics predicated on obedience, or the crushing of individuality, whether by “enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men.” Mill termed Christianity “essentially a doctrine of passive obedience; it inculcates submission to all authorities found established.”

Mill was a member of Parliament from 1865 to 1868, rising to the defense of Charles Bradlaugh, the atheist politician who had to fight for years to be seated in Parliament. Although Mill’s views were unpopular, Gladstone once referred to Mill as “the saint of Rationalism.” Mill’s Reform Bill of 1867, the first attempt to grant the vote to British women, while unsuccessful, ignited the British suffrage movement. Three essays on religion were published posthumously. In them, Mill hints that he had adopted a Deistic belief in what he termed a “limited liability god,” surprising his freethinking friends. But his strong repudiation of miracles and dogma, while outraging the public, was a seminal defense of rationalism. Mill wrote in Utility of Religion, published in 1874, that belief “in the supernatural . . . cannot be considered to be any longer required. . .” Another famous passage by Mills states:

Religiously wrong [is] a motive of legislation which can never be too earnestly protested against. Deorum injuriae Diis curae. Injustices to the gods are the concern of the gods. It remains to be proved that society or any of its officers holds a commission from on high to avenge any supposed offense to Omnipotence which is not also a wrong to our fellow creatures. The notion that it is one man’s duty that another should be religious was the foundation of all the religious persecutions ever perpetrated, and, if admitted, would fully justify them … A determination not to tolerate others in doing what is permitted by their religion, because it is not permitted by the persecutor’s religion. It is a belief that God not only abominates the act of the misbeliever, but will not hold us guiltless if we leave him unmolested.

The issues Mill dealt with–and did so admirably consistently– are still relevant today. This becomes evident when we feel sure that we can tell where he would have stood on the issues of our day. To borrow the judgement of another great mind and thinker, Isaiah Berlin, Mill’s On Liberty “is still the clearest, most candid, persuasive, and moving exposition of the point of view of those who desire an open and tolerant society.” (Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, p.201).

May 20, 1996 (a Monday)

Scales of Justice

On this date, the US Supreme Court issued its opinion in the landmark case of Romer v. Evans (517 US 620), declaring unconstitutional an amendment to the Colorado state constitution that prohibited state and local governments from enacting any law, regulation, or policy that would, in effect, protect the civil rights of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. In its ruling, the Court made clear that moral disapproval does not justify governmental discrimination and shattered the “special rights” rhetoric of those who oppose equal treatment for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people.

Romer marked the first time in its history that the Court recognized lesbians and gay men as worthy and deserving of equal rights. The decision helped stem the tide of antigay initiatives that were spreading across the West in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The case was also important because it laid the groundwork for other important gay rights decisions. Most notably, when the Supreme Court reversed Bowers v. Hardwick and struck down all sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), it said that the “foundations of Bowers have sustained serious erosion from our recent decisions in Casey [a right to privacy case on abortion] and Romer.”

The amendment at issue in Romer v. Evans, known as Amendment 2, was placed on the November, 1992 ballot following a petition drive. The Amendment provided that:

Neither the State of Colorado, through any of its branches or departments, nor any of its agencies, political subdivisions, municipalities or school districts, shall enact, adopt or enforce any statute, regulation, ordinance or policy whereby homosexual, lesbian or bisexual orientation, conduct, practices or relationships shall constitute or otherwise be the basis of or entitle any person or class of persons to have or claim any minority status, quota preferences, protected status or claim of discrimination.

The Amendment was promoted by a conservative Christian group called Colorado for Family Values that had formed to repeal all municipal and state laws and regulations prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. There were two conflicting interpretations circulating in Colorado about these ordinances, state laws, and executive orders:

  • Colorado for Family Values and other religious conservatives described the regulations as granting “minority status protections to homosexuals, not granted to any other citizens.” That is, the regulations gave special privileges to gays and lesbians that were denied the heterosexual majority and the bisexual minority.
  • Gays, lesbians, and others held an opposing view: that these ordinances and laws protected everyone from any discrimination that they might suffer because of their sexual orientation. Specifically, they protect: (1) heterosexuals — the majority of adults who are sexually attracted to members of the opposite gender, (2) homosexuals — a minority of adults who are attracted to persons of the same gender, and (3) bisexuals — a smaller minority who are attracted to persons of both genders. Thus, according to this view, heterosexuals, homosexuals and bisexuals are all protected by antidiscrimination ordinances and laws to the same degree.

Since terms such as “homosexual”, “lesbian”, “gay”, and “bisexual” did not appear anywhere in the ordinances and laws, it seems that the interpretation by gays and others was correct: homosexuals and bisexuals were not given any special privileges by these ordinances and laws. The conservative Christians were factually incorrect. However, they conducted a masterful advertising campaign and Amendment 2 passed by a narrow margin (53.4% to 46.6%). According to the conservative Christian National Legal Foundation, this prevented their state legislature and all local “governments from granting protected status to a group of individuals based not on an inalienable physical characteristic, but on a chosen lifestyle.” This comment demonstrates two very common beliefs among religious conservatives:

  • That homosexuality is a chosen and changeable behavior; it is what homosexuals do. Religious liberals, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, mental health therapists, human sexuality researchers and others generally believe that homosexuality is actually an immutable, unchosen and unchangeable sexual orientation; it is what homosexuals are.
  • That groups should only be protected against discrimination based on immutable factors, such as sex, race, and skin color. They reject the concept that people should be protected from discrimination based on chosen factors. Since they regard homosexuality as a “chosen lifestyle,” they feel that homosexuals should not be a protected class. They overlook the fact that people choose the religion that they wish to follow. Nevertheless, religious conservatives demand freedom from religious discrimination.

The Amendment was immediately challenged in the state District Court for the City and County of Denver by a coalition of gays, lesbians, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and representatives from the Colorado municipalities of Denver, Boulder, and Aspen, which had gay rights ordinances in effect. They sued Governor Roy Romer (ironically, who had been on record as opposing the Amendment), state Attorney General Gale Norton, and the State of Colorado. The plaintiffs argued that Amendment 2 violated their federal First Amendment right to free expression and their federal Fourteenth Amendment right to Equal Protection of the laws.

Plaintiffs sought and received a preliminary injunction from the trial court, thus preventing Amendment 2 from ever being implemented. The injunction was upheld by the Colorado Supreme Court. The trial court and the Colorado Supreme Court agreed that Amendment 2 infringed the fundamental right of gays and lesbians to participate in the political process. They found that Amendment 2 had violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. The US Supreme Court agreed (6 to 3).

Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, rejected the assertion that Amendment 2 simply deprived homosexuals of “special rights” which were not shared by the rest of the population. This was the argument used by Colorado for Family Values during their advertising campaign which lead up to the plebiscite. The Court ruled that, under Amendment 2:

Homosexuals are forbidden the safeguards that others enjoy or may seek without constraint. They can obtain specific protection against discrimination only by enlisting the citizenry of Colorado to amend the state constitution or perhaps, on the State’s view, by trying to pass helpful laws of general applicability. This is so no matter how local or discrete the harm, no matter how public and widespread the injury. We find nothing special in the protections Amendment 2 withholds. These are protections taken for granted by most people either because they already have them or do not need them; these are protections against exclusion from an almost limitless number of transactions and endeavors that constitute ordinary civic life in a free society.

The court also found:

. . . that Amendment 2 did discriminate against an identifiable class of people and violated their rights to due process and equal protection under the law. The court held that Amendment 2 was based in “animus,” or hatred, against a specific group of people.

In unusually frank language, the Court found that:

. . . the amendment has the peculiar property of imposing a broad and undifferentiated disability on a single named group, an exceptional and, as we shall explain, invalid form of legislation. Second, its sheer breadth is so discontinuous with the reasons offered for it that the amendment seems inexplicable by anything but animus toward the class that it affects; it lacks a rational relationship to legitimate state interests. . . . Amendment 2 confounds this normal process of judicial review. It is at once too narrow and too broad. It identifies persons by a single trait and then denies them protection across the board. The resulting disqualification of a class of persons from the right to seek specific protection from the law is unprecedented in our jurisprudence.

In conclusion, Justice Kennedy commented:

The primary rationale the State offers for Amendment 2 is respect for other citizens’ freedom of association, and in particular the liberties of landlords or employers who have personal or religious objections to homosexuality. Colorado also cites its interest in conserving resources to fight discrimination against other groups. The breadth of the Amendment is so far removed from these particular justifications that we find it impossible to credit them. We cannot say that Amendment 2 is directed to any identifiable legitimate purpose or discrete objective. It is a status based enactment divorced from any factual context from which we could discern a relationship to legitimate state interests; it is a classification of persons undertaken for its own sake, something the Equal Protection Clause does not permit. . . . We must conclude that Amendment 2 classifies homosexuals not to further a proper legislative end but to make them unequal to everyone else. This Colorado cannot do. A State cannot so deem a class of persons a stranger to its laws. Amendment 2 violates the Equal Protection Clause, and the judgment of the Supreme Court of Colorado is affirmed.

In other words, the majority concluded that the creation of so‐called special rights for gays, which prevented discrimination against them, was really just another manifestation of equal rights, to which all persons were entitled. Amendment 2 was dead.

The Flag of Gay Pride

The dissenters, however, were blistering in denouncing the majority’s actions. Joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Antonin Scalia accused the Court, in his typical hyperbole and hysteria, of “tak[ing] sides in the culture wars”. He characterized Amendment 2 as “rather a modest attempt by seemingly tolerant Coloradans to preserve traditional sexual mores against the efforts of a politically powerful minority to revise those mores through use of the laws.” He criticized the Court’s majority for “imposing upon all Americans the resolution favored by the elite class from which the Members of this institution are selected.” [Scalia dropped his membership in the American Bar Association back in the 1980s when it took a position against gay discrimination.] Pointing to the “centuries-old” condemnation of homosexuality, he concluded that Colorado was “entitled to be hostile toward homosexual conduct” (his emphasis). Scalia even compared homosexuality to murder and cruelty to animals:

The Court’s opinion contains grim, disapproving hints that Coloradans have been guilty of “animus” or “animosity” toward homosexuality, as though that has been established as Unamerican. Of course it is our moral heritage that one should not hate any human being or class of human beings. But I had thought that one could consider certain conduct reprehensible — murder, for example, or polygamy, or cruelty to animals — and could exhibit even “animus” toward such conduct.

In reaching his conclusion, Scalia adopted a number of classic stereotypes about the lesbian and gay community. He said “those who engage in homosexual conduct tend to reside in disproportionate numbers in certain communities, have high disposable income, and…possess political power much greater than their numbers, both locally and statewide.” Scalia proffered that the goal of the lesbian and gay civil rights movement is to “devote this political power to achieving not merely a grudging social toleration, but full social acceptance, of homosexuality.”

Interestingly, Chief Justice Rehnquist’s animosity toward gays and lesbians had never been a secret. For example, in Ratchford v. Gay Lib (1978), an opinion from Justice Rehnquist seemed to compare the right of homosexuals to assemble and advocate for legal reform to that of “those suffering from measles [who seek] a constitutional right, in violation of quarantine regulations, to associate together and with others who do not presently have measles”.

May 19, 1989 (a Friday)

On this date, Communist China’s General Secretary Zhao Ziyang made his last public appearance, when he visited student demonstrators in front of the Forbidden City and urged them to leave Tiananmen Square, warning that police would use force if they did not. The protests had begun several weeks earlier over the government’s refusal to allow public mourning upon the death on April 15th of pro-democracy official, Hu Yaobang.

At 4:50 am, in the darkness, Zhao Ziyang showed up on the edge of Tiananmen Square unexpectedly. He had come without permission from either the Poliburo or Deng Xiaoping. To his annoyance he realized that he had been followed by his hardliner rival Li Peng, whose appearance in the Square seemed ridiculous as Li was so thoroughly despised by the students. With Li behind him like a shadow, Zhao walked toward the fleet of city buses in which the hunger strikers were living. The exhausted and downbeat national leader was accompanied by his aide, Wen Jiabao, and other staff and guards. The entourage caused quite a stir. Zhao boarded one of the buses housing hunger strikers, shook hands, and gave an unprepared speech to a few cameras. He rumbled through, begging students to stop the hunger strike, but offered nothing other than the famous farewell-ish line, “I am old, I really don’t care any more…”


Zhao made this nocturnal visit after the Communist Chinese Politburo had decided to declare martial law and send in combat troops against Zhao’s wishes. Martial law was formally announced on the evening of May 19 in the Great Hall of the People, where Li Peng addressed thousands of government cadres. At midnight May 19, a few hours after students ended their hunger strike, the loudspeaker on Tiananmen Square announced the government’s martial law: Military troops were to enter the city and clear the Square. The martial law was made official throughout the nation in the morning of May 20.

That dazed-looking aide behind Zhao Ziyang is Wen Jiabao, more recently China’s prime minister.

Mr Zhao was a powerful figure within Communist China’s opaque apparatus of power, but his decision to back the young protesters in Tiananmen Square cost him his career, and earned him 16 years under arrest in his Beijing home. His removal from power was “effectively a coup,” according to American diplomatic officer Raymond Burghardt, who was chief political officer in Beijing at the time. Ironically, Zhao’s aide, Wen Jiabao, escaped the taint of his allegiance to his superior and is today the Prime Minister of Communist China.

Remarkably, the secret memoirs of Zhao Ziyang exploded into the open, four years after his death, on May 14, 2009. Dictated during his years of house arrest and smuggled out on cassettes disguised as children’s music or Peking opera, they were published as a book entitled, Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang. Thus, Zhao posthumously became the first senior member of the Chinese Communist Party to openly criticize the government and the actions of his former colleagues with the publication of his memoirs.

The current Communist Chinese leadership says the crackdown was a “disturbance” by “hooligans” and says crushing the revolt was essential to ensure a stable foundation for the country’s economic growth. Mr. Zhao takes the opposite view.

Excerpts from Prisoner of the State (2009)
By Zhao Ziyang

On the 17 May meeting:

I walked out as soon as the meeting adjourned. At that moment, I was extremely upset. I told myself that no matter what, I refused to become the General Secretary who mobilized the military to crack down on students.

On the Tiananmen crackdown:

On the night of June 3rd, while sitting in the courtyard with my family, I heard intense gunfire. A tragedy to shock the world had not been averted, and was happening after all… First, it was determined then that the student movement was a planned conspiracy of anti-Party, anti-socialist elements with leadership. So now we must ask, who were these leaders? What was the plan? What was the conspiracy? What evidence exists to support this? Second, it was said that this event was aimed at overthrowing the People’s Republic and the Communist Party. Where is the evidence? I had said at the time that most people were only asking us to correct our flaws, not attempting to overthrow our political system. Third, can it be proven that the June Fourth movement was “counterrevolutionary turmoil,” as it was designated? The students were orderly. Many reports indicate that on the occasions when the People’s Liberation Army came under attack, in many incidents it was the students who had come to its defense. Large numbers of city residents blocked the PLA from entering the city. Why? Were they intent on overthrowing the republic?

On democracy:

It would be wrong if our Party never makes the transition from a state that was suitable in a time of war to a state more suitable to a democracy society… The ruling Party must achieve two breakthroughs. One is to allow other political parties and a free press to exist. The second… is, the Party needs to adopt democratic procedures and use democratic means to reform itself… Different opinions must be allowed to exist, and different factions should be made legitimate.

The last word:

Whether the Communist Party persists should be determined by the consequences of society’s political openness and the competition between the Communist Party and other political powers (…) The trend is irrefutable, that the fittest will survive.

According to the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, which is headquartered in Hong Kong, Mr. Zhao had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize every year since 1999.

May 18, 1989 (a Thursday)

18 May 1989.   Beijing University students during a huge demonstration at Tiananmen Square start an unlimited hunger strike, part of the mass pro-democracy protest against the Chinese government. Photo credit Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images.

18 May 1989. Beijing University students during a huge demonstration at Tiananmen Square start an unlimited hunger strike, part of the mass pro-democracy protest against the Chinese government. Photo credit Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images.

On this date, a crowd of protesters, estimated to number more than one million, marched through the streets of Beijing with songs, slogans, and banners calling for greater democracy and the ouster of some hard-line Chinese officials.

China, Beijing, Tian'anmen Square. 18 May 1989. Trucks arrive from all over the city as well as from the country.

China, Beijing, Tian’anmen Square. 18 May 1989. Trucks arrive from all over the city as well as from the country.

Also, this morning Li Peng, member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the CPC Central Committee and premier of the State Council, and others met with representatives of the students, who had been fasting at Tiananmen Square, at the Great Hall of the People. On the evening of May 18th, Party elders and Politburo members, including Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng, approved the declaration of martial law.

Chinese workers parade through Beijing streets, 18 May 1989, in support of student hunger strikers gathered at Tiananmen Square. Photo credit Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images.

Chinese workers parade through Beijing streets, 18 May 1989, in support of student hunger strikers gathered at Tiananmen Square. Photo credit Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images.

The protests were part of the months-long movement to occupy Tiananmen Square in central Beijing, which culminated in the brutal repression of June 1989. In the wake of the crackdown, the Chinese government condemned the protests as a “counter-revolutionary rebellion”, though it has never publicly accounted for those killed. The massacre caused horror around the world, and China was marginalized by the international community, but as Deng Xiaoping reportedly said: “The West always forgets.

May 18, 1910 (a Wednesday)

On this date, thousands of people took to their roofs, huddling for comfort and praying for salvation. Many believed the end of the world was near. The source of their anxiety was the return of Halley’s Comet from its 75-year odyssey through space.

Comet Halley

Many scientists were excited by the opportunity to increase the knowledge of astronomy. By late 1909, several of the world’s major observatories had geared up for Halley’s appearance. The public, too, eagerly awaited the moment when the comet became visible to the naked eye. Scientists had calculated it would appear between May 18 and 19, predicting that Halley’s tail would possibly sweep across Earth.

The tabloids jumped in, and discussed the catastrophic effects of the gaseous comet on the Earth’s atmosphere, causing many to panic. Despite a number of previous documented appearances having caused no deaths, the 1910 return of Halley’s Comet was widely perceived as a threat to mankind, allegedly due to noxious vapors emanating from its tail. This may be the first apocalyptic panic founded on a scientific, rather than religious misapprehension. In actual fact, the tail of Halley’s Comet never came any closer than 400,000 km to the Earth’s surface, and would not have been harmful at any distance.

May 14, 1864 (a Saturday)

A fragment of the Orgueil meteorite.

On this date, a carbonaceous chondrite disintegrated and fell in fragments near the French town of Orgueil. One specimen was immediately examined by the French scientist S. Cloëz, who commented that its content “would seem to indicate the existence of organized substances in celestial bodies.” Subsequently, several eminent chemists of the time, including Gabriel-Auguste Dubrée and Marcellin Berthelot, analyzed samples and confirmed the existence of organic materials in the rock. However, hopes of discovering actual living matter in the meteorite were dashed by the experiments of Louis Pasteur, as recounted by Carl Sagan:

[He] caused a special drill to be constructed, which, he hoped, would remove samples from the interior of the meteorite without contaminating them with microorganisms from outside. Using sterile techniques, Pasteur inoculated an organic medium to search for growth of any indigenous microorganisms which the meteorite interior might contain. The results were negative, and have relevance today: Pasteur extracted his sample shortly after the fall of the meteorite, and was, of course, a very careful experimentalist.

A fragment of the Ivuna meteorite (Tanzania, Africa, 1938).

Virtually all meteorites scientists have studied are former parts of asteroids. However, recent determination of the amino acid signatures within the Orgueil meteorite and Ivuna meteorite suggest that these compounds were likely synthesized from components such as hydrogen cyanide, which have been recently observed in the comets Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake. This suggests that the organic material in Orgueil and Ivuna is the product of reactions that once took place in the nucleus of a comet, which, if true, would make these meteorites the first to be identified as having come from a cometary nucleus. This would add to the evidence that the amino acids that helped generate life on Earth may have been delivered by meteorites that were derived from the remnants of comets.

May 14, 1966 (a Saturday)

Tzu Chi Foundation is socially engaged Buddhism.

On this date, the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation was established.

Dharma Master Cheng Yen established the Tzu Chi Foundation in Hualien, on the poor east coast of Taiwan.  Its work is based upon the Buddhist principle of living out the spirit of a Buddha and carrying out the bodhisattva mission.  With the values of self-discipline, diligence, frugality, and perseverance, Tzu Chi set out to help the poor and relieve suffering. Since then, the foundation has been contributing to better social and community services, medical care, education and humanism in Taiwan and around the world. Tzu Chi now has chapters and offices in 47 countries and provides aid to over 69 nations. Its volunteers selflessly contribute through a mindset of gratitude, expressing their sincerest care and support to each and every individual in need.

May 13, 1846 (a Wednesday)

Map of Gen. Taylor's advance, July 1845 to May 1846.

Map of Gen. Taylor’s advance, July 1845 to May 1846.

On this date, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly voted in favor of President James K. Polk’s request to declare war on Mexico in a dispute over Texas – the first American military conflict fought entirely on foreign soil.

The events that led to the war show that Polk deliberately provoked the conflict: Although Mexico had not formally recognized the independence of Texas or its annexation by the United States, Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor in 1845 to lead a 3,500-man army into Texas to Corpus Christi on the Nueces River, which Mexico considered its northern border.

On 8 March 1846, Secretary of War Marcy ordered Taylor to move his army from Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande River, which Texas considered its southern border. On March 28, Taylor reached his destination, the north bank of the river directly opposite the Mexican town of Matamoros. His army began constructing an earthen fortification called Fort Texas (later renamed Fort Brown).

On April 11, Mexican General Mariano Arista and his army reached Matamoros. Arista considered Taylor’s arrival on the Rio Grande an act of aggression and demanded that his army withdraw north of the Nueces River, but Taylor refused. Mexican President Mariano Paredes issued a manifesto on April 23, arguing that by advancing into Mexican territory — and simultaneously threatening Upper California with naval mobilizations off the Pacific Coast — the United States had already begun hostilities. Mexican soldiers believed it was a defensive war when they ambushed the troops of American Captain Seth B. Thornton and killed or injured about 16 of his men on April 24; Taylor sent Polk a letter declaring that “hostilities have commenced.”

Interestingly, on 12 January 1848, a member of the Illinois delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives, Abraham Lincoln, questioned Polk’s motives and accused him of lying to Congress about his justification for the war:

The President, in his first message of May, 1846, declares that the soil was ours on which hostilities were commenced by Mexico; and he repeats that declaration, almost in the same language, in each successive annual message – thus showing that he esteems that point a highly essential one. In the importance of that point, I entirely agree with the President. To my judgment, it is the very point upon which he should be justified or condemned. In his message of December, 1846, it seems to have occurred to him… that it was incumbent upon him to present the facts from which he concluded the soil was ours, on which the first blood of the war was shed. Accordingly…in the message last referred to, he enters upon that task; forming an issue and introducing testimony… Now, I propose to try to show that the whole of this — issue and evidence — is, from beginning to end, the sheerest deception.


I am now through the whole of the President’s evidence; and it is a singular fact, that if any one should declare the President sent the army into the midst of a settlement of Mexican people, who had never submited, by consent or by force to the authority of Texas or of the United States, and that there, and thereby, the first blood of the war was shed, there is not one word in all the President has said which would either admit or deny the declaration [i.e., Polk did not answer the charge]. In this strange omission cheifly consists the deception of the President’s evidence – an omission which, it does seem to me, could scarcely have occurred but by design. [emphases in the original]

An important factor that led to the war was the American ideology of Manifest Destiny. John L. O’Sullivan coined the phrase when he wrote in the July/August 1845 issue of The Democratic Review that it must be “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” The term conveyed the idea that the rightful destiny of the United States included imperialistic expansion.

Although the phrase Manifest Destiny was a neologism in 1845, the philosophy it referred to had been around for centuries in America. As originally conceived, Manifest Destiny was an unabashedly prejudiced idea. It rested upon the sidelining or eradication (both real-world and fictional) of American Indian peoples; there was little place for African Americans (free or enslaved) within the trope; Asian and Hispanic immigrants did not figure in the ideal America it conjured. Catholics were generally ignored; women were deemed unimportant. God intended North America to be under the control of peoples who were white, Protestant, and overwhelmingly male, with an unquenchable thirst for free enterprise. It was a kind of early projection of Anglo-Saxon supremacy and there was a conspicuous racist element to it.

Boone’s First View of Kentucky, by William Ranney (1849). Manifest Destiny influenced American art, and American art supported Manifest Destiny.

Boone’s First View of Kentucky, by William Ranney (1849). Manifest Destiny influenced American art, and American art supported Manifest Destiny.

Of course, Americans did not universally subscribe to Manifest Destiny, but its vocal critics were always in the minority. One of them, William E. Channing, wrote an open letter to Henry Clay in 1837:

Did this county know itself, or were it disposed to profit by self-knowledge, it would feel the necessity of laying an immediate curb on its passion for extended territory…. We are a restless people, prone to encroachment, impatient of the ordinary laws of progress… We boast of our rapid growth, forgetting that, throughout nature, noble growths are slow….. It is full time that we should lay on ourselves serious, resolute restraint. Possessed of a domain, vast enough for the growth of ages, it is time for us to stop in the career of acquisition and conquest. Already endangered by our greatness, we cannot advance without imminent peril to our institutions, union, prosperity, virtue, and peace….. It is sometimes said, that nations are swayed by laws, as unfailing as those which govern matter; that they have their destinies; that their character and position carry them forward irresistibly to their goal;….that … the Indians have melted before the white man, and the mixed, degraded race of Mexico must melt before the Anglo-Saxon. Away with this vile sophistry! There is no necessity for crime. There is no fate to justify rapacious nations, any more than to justify gamblers and robbers, in plunder. We boast of the progress of society, and this progress consists in the substitution of reason and moral principle for the sway of brute force….We talk of accomplishing our destiny. So did the late conqueror of Europe [Napoleon]; and destiny consigned him to a lonely rock in the ocean, the prey of ambition which destroyed no peace but his own.


I have alluded to the want of wisdom with which we are accustomed to speak of our destiny as a people. We are destined [emphasis in the original] (that is the word) to overspread North America; and, intoxicated with the idea, it matters little to us how we accomplish our fate. To spread, to supplant others, to cover a boundless space, this seems our ambition, no matter what influence we spread with us. Why cannot we rise to noble conceptions of our destiny? Why do we not feel, that that our work as a nation is, to carry freedom, religion, science, and a nobler form of human nature over this continent; and why do we not remember, that to diffuse these blessings we must first cherish them in our own borders; and that whatever deeply and permanently corrupts us will make our spreading influence a curse, not a blessing, to this new world? It is a common idea in Europe, that we are destined to spread an inferior civilization over North America; that our slavery and our absorption in gain and outward interests mark us out, as fated to fall behind the old world in the higher improvements of human nature, in the philosophy, the refinements, the enthusiasm of literature and the arts which throw a lustre round older countries. I am not prophet enough to read our fate. I believe, indeed, that we are to make our futurity for ourselves. I believe, that a nation’s destiny lies in its character, in the principles which govern its policy and bear rule in the hearts of its citizens. I take my stand on God’s moral and eternal law. A nation renouncing and defying this cannot be free, cannot be great.

After the Mexican-American War began, U.S. expansionists invoked the phrase Manifest Destiny to rationalize imperialistic demands that their country use the opportunity provided by the conflict and conquer and retain much or all of Mexico. Even O’Sullivan, who had stressed Manifest Destiny’s peaceful nature, claimed that the United States deserved an indemnity such as California from Mexico. Many wartime proponents of Manifest Destiny fused into the ideology a belief that the United States had a mission to regenerate Mexico by bringing progress and Protestantism southward: U.S. troops would liberate what was described as a benighted Mexican population from the control of despotic rulers and Catholic priests. In answer to racist objections to absorbing Mexicans into the Union, some wartime expansionists responded that through superior breeding abilities or other means U.S. Anglo-Saxons would gradually displace Mexicans, and that there was nothing to fear from expansion southward.

Manifest Destiny was a graceful way to justify something unjustifiable. Ulysses S. Grant, one of the most prominent of American military men, and himself a participant in the war, wrote in his memoirs, “I do not think there ever was a more wicked war than that waged by the United States in Mexico. I thought so at the time, when I was a youngster, only I had not moral courage enough to resign.”

Unfortunately, the ideology of Manifest Destiny has continued to be an important concept in American culture up to the present day. After the Mexican-American War, U.S. expansionists broadened Manifest Destiny’s scope, applying the slogan increasingly to areas beyond the continent including Cuba, Hawaii, South America, and the Philippines. Like Americans before 1845, we may not use the specific words “Manifest Destiny” to describe the belief that America has a unique destiny in the world, but the concept is still at the heart of much U.S. foreign policy, American pop culture, and contemporary political debate.


May 10, 1990 (a Thursday)

Tiananmen Square – June 2, 1989

On this date, the government of the People’s Republic of China announced that it was releasing 211 people arrested during the crackdown on massive protests held in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in June 1989. A brief government statement simply indicated, “Lawbreakers involved in the turmoil and counterrevolutionary rebellion last year have been given lenient treatment and released upon completion of investigations.” The statement also declared that over 400 other “law-breakers” were still being investigated while being held in custody. Most observers viewed the prisoner release as an attempt by the communist government of China to dispel much of the terrible publicity it received for its brutal suppression of the 1989 protests. In fact, in the United States, where the administration of President George Bush was considering the extension of most-favored-nation status to China, the release of the prisoners was hailed as a step in the right direction.

May 9, 1950 (a Tuesday)

Scientology in Hollywood.

Scientology in Hollywood.

On this date, Lafayette Ronald Hubbard (1911-1986) published Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. With this book, Hubbard introduced a branch of self-help psychology called “Dianetics”, which quickly caught fire and, over time, morphed into a belief system boasting millions of subscribers: Scientology.

Hubbard was already a prolific and frequently published writer by the time he penned the book that would change his life. Under several pseudonyms in the 1930s, he had published a great amount of pulp fiction, particularly in the science fiction and fantasy genres. In late 1949, having returned from serving in the Navy in World War II, Hubbard began publishing articles in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction, a magazine that published works by the likes of Isaac Asimov and Jack Williamson. Out of these grew the elephantine text known as Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.

Though discredited by the medical and scientific establishment, over 100,000 copies of Dianetics were sold in the first two years of publication, and Hubbard soon found himself lecturing across the country. He went on to write six more books in 1951, developing a significant fan base and establishing the Hubbard Dianetics Research Foundation in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

In 1953, L. Ron Hubbard introduced “Scientology”. Scientology expanded on Dianetics by bringing Hubbard’s popular version of psychotherapy into the realm of philosophy, and ultimately, religion. In only a few years, Hubbard found himself at the helm of a movement that captured the popular imagination. As Scientology grew in the 1960s, several national governments became suspicious of Hubbard, accusing him of quackery and brainwashing his followers.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Paul Breckenridge defined Scientology well in June 1984: “In addition to violating and abusing its own members’ civil rights, the organization over the years with its ‘fair game’ doctrine has harassed and abused those persons not in the church whom it perceives as enemies.” In a 1967 policy titled Penalties for Lower Conditions, Hubbard had written that opponents who are “fair game” may be “deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist without any discipline of the Scientologist. May be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed.”

However, on 1 October 1993, the Internal Revenue Service, after an extraordinary campaign of lawsuits and harassment against the IRS and its officials by Scientology, issued letters reclassifying Scientology and every one of its organizations as a religion instead of a business. The American tax man made Scientology fully tax-exempt. By granting Scientology tax exemption, the U.S. government is cooperating with an organization that appears to put citizens from around the world at significant mental health and perhaps medical risk.

Not everything that calls itself a religion is a religion. It could be a multibillion-dollar business, an organization with a mafia-like hold over its followers, or a brainwashing cult. Some ex-members say the so-called Church of Scientology is all three.

In Britain, as far as the Charity Commissioners are concerned, for the purposes of English charity law: “Scientology is not a religion.

The underlying logic of the British test is that a religion must be open to all and open about itself. Go into a Christian church and they will tell you about Jesus. You will see images of him, everywhere, dating back almost 2,000 years. Go into a Hindu temple and you will see images of Ganesh, the multi-armed elephant God, everywhere, images that go back millennia. Go into a Church of Scientology and you will see no image of Xenu. No member of the Church of Scientology will admit to Xenu’s existence, but ex-Scientologists say he is at the heart of its cosmology. Scientology fails the British test of what is or is not a religion because it is not open about what it believes in. A belief system that tells lies about its core belief does not have the automatic right to be treated as a religion.

Since 1995, the Church of Scientology has not enjoyed the legal protections accorded to religions in Germany, after a judge ruled that it was not a religion but a group “masquerading as a religion in order to make a profit.”

Suggested reading:

May 7, 1925 (a Thursday)

Church/State sign.

On this date, the highly orchestrated arrest (but not detention) of John T. Scopes took place. The Tennessee legislature had earlier passed the Butler Act, which declared:

… that it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.

As a reaction to this, the American Civil Liberties Union had offered to defend anyone who so dared to teach evolution in Tennessee. Some local business owners in Dayton thought that their town might be able to get some easy publicity if they were able to come up with someone who they could say violated the Butler Act. Scopes had volunteered, and ultimately he was charged with teaching evolution to a high school class.

May 6, 1966 (a Friday)

ResearchBlogging.orgOn this date, American paleobotanist Elso S. Barghoorn of Harvard reported the discovery of Precambian spherical one-celled alga-like microfossils (named Eobacterium isolatum, which means “solitary dawn bacteria”) 3.4 billion years old, Earth’s earliest life forms. Barghoorn, with J. William Schopf, studied the 3.2 billion year old chert (a flintlike or quartz-like rock) of the Fig Tree formation in Transvaal, South Africa. Rubidium and strontium ratios in the chert suggested an age of over 3 billion years. The fossils are examples of prokaryotes, unicellular organisms that lack a nucleus and have a distinctive cell wall containing organic chemicals.


  • Barghoorn, E.S., Schopf, J.W. (1966). Microorganisms three billion years old from the Precambrian of South Africa. Science, 152(3723), 758-763. DOI: 10.1126/science.152.3723.758